Sukiyaki


by Jeff Esterholm


I wasn’t a window-peeping perv, but that was how I first saw her. Bets and I had moved uptown from Superior’s North End in the summer of 1963. It was the final piece that my mother and assorted family friends needed to be convinced. I was guilty of overreach. I had married a Greenwich Village painter and then brought this bride of mine home to Wisconsin. Now, after living a month in a flat at 5th and Weeks, we had moved to a house uptown. I accepted a position as an English lit lecturer at the state university and our new home was within walking distance of the campus. The North-Enders, they were sure that I’d forgotten where I’d come from, the old neighborhood with the first and second generations of Scandinavian-American stock, willfully ignorant, unambitious. I was an academic, an ambitious one, but I wasn’t a window-peeping perv.

It was mid-June and we’d lived uptown less than a week. The humidity was something awful that night and our one-year-old, Marky, couldn’t get to sleep, so I took him for a walk. Really, I just carried him through the quiet night of our new neighborhood. He knocked off in no time, a diapered, sweating heap against my shoulder, but I continued walking, smoking one KOOL after another, the rubber soles of my sneakers padding down the sidewalk, noting who was still up, who was not, the screened windows open to the still night. Returning home by way of the gravel alley that cut through the block, I noticed a light on at the house across the alley from ours. The shade was partially open. Framed in that letterbox of yellow light were her bare shoulders and breasts as she dried herself off with a white towel. Less than twenty feet away. I looked around, but, of course, no one else was out, and I crunched up to a tall lilac that edged the alley, watched her through its branches, and lit another cigarette. I watched until she finished, flicked off the light, and left the room, Marky never waking at my shoulder. Hurrying home, I put my young son to bed and woke Bets in our own.

 

The neighbors across the alley weren’t part of the neighborhood welcome group. That association consisted of old white- and blue-haired women who stopped by during the day to introduce themselves to Bets, distracting my boho wife from her latest canvas, dropping off fruit baskets, offering to watch Marky because they knew how young couples needed time alone, a dinner date at the Hi-35 Supper Club, a movie at the Beacon or Palace, and to gossip about everyone else in the neighborhood like old biddies are wont to do.

Bets laughed while she told me. “They really look down on the Albrechts. The hubby, Peter, is some grizzled World War II vet, ten or fifteen years older than Margo, the wife. No kids and,” she glanced at my can of Hamm’s and the lit KOOL, “drinkers and chain smokers.”

“The idea.”

“Indeed. I think they wanted to say more about Margo, but couldn’t bring themselves to say the words.”

“What? Harlot? Trollop? Tart?”

Bets slapped my arm playfully. “The hints were flying fast and furious, let me tell you. The ladies sort of lost me though when they started going on about this Margo Albrecht’s looks. How did Mrs. Ellis put it? Margo has ‘coarse north country features that aren’t much to look at in broad daylight.’ I thought that was pretty mean.”

“Is she enticing their old husbands? The tramp.”

“Search me. But I wanted to invite them to dinner. Peter and Margo. They sound much more interesting than Mrs. Ellis’ crowd.”

“Where do they live?”

“Across the alley from us. Imagine that, the cradle robbing veteran and his homely tramp of a wife.”

“Across the alley?”

“Yes, the green house. I walked over this afternoon, but another neighbor lady – Mrs. Hooker, can you believe that? – she said that Margo works in the strip mall on Belknap, by Red Owl. She manages a liquor store!”

At that point, recalling the bared shoulders and breasts, I was catching little of what Bets was saying, but was cognizant enough to offer to invite the Albrechts over. “What do you say? Saturday night?”

“You’ll go do that? You’re an angel!”

Finishing a smoke, I glanced up and down the alley. Neighborhood kids were plowing through the gravel on their bicycles, fathers were firing up lawnmowers in backyards while others were just pulling in from work. Then I looked across the alley at the Albrecht house. Someone was at a rear window but was gone as soon as she saw me staring back at her. That’s what I thought, anyway. I smiled, stubbed out my smoke in the gravel, and walked over to meet Margo Albrecht. I wasn’t feeling angelic.

“Come on in,” a woman called when I knuckled the wood frame of the screen door. It was a voice rubbed down to its essentials.

The kitchen was dimly lit, just the afternoon sunlight coming in through the window over the sink. She was at the counter, prepping for supper, or a cocktail, wearing a man’s gray and blue plaid robe. It was too large for her, but the hipshot way she stood there with her back to me brought out the round swell of her backside. “Mrs. Albrecht?”

“Margo,” she said, glancing over her shoulder, and then she slowly spun around, a paring knife in her hand.

My breath caught somewhere near the top of my chest. The too large robe was tied smartly at her waist, yet gaped at her breasts. The subdued light and shadow revealed their curve and heft. I wanted to test their weight in my hands. I wanted to draw my finger down from her throat to her belly.

“No, really, call me Margo.” She made no move to close the top of the robe. “I always change out of my clothes as soon as I get home from work, so excuse the robe.”

Remembering to inhale and exhale with some measure of normality, I said, “No apology necessary.” Then I introduced myself and explained why I had dropped by.

“Ah, the young professor. We’d be happy to come over on Saturday.” She called for her husband and he walked into the kitchen, shirtless and wearing baggy Army fatigues, the evening newspaper in his hand. Peter was a short, leather-faced man, muscular, but sickly looking at the same time.

He shook my hand, giving me the impression of one who couldn’t be bothered, and so left me alone once again with his wife.

“So, Saturday,” I said.

She came up and touched my lips with the hand that wasn’t holding the knife. I didn’t smell food on her fingers. I smelled her. “Yes.” Margo thumped me playfully on the chest. “Saturday.” She let her fingertips linger. “Hard.” Then they slid down.

I was flummoxed. “I work out a little at the university gym.”

“I believe it.”

“Saturday?”

“Saturday.”

I took a cold shower when I got back home.

 

Bets and I learned a lot about the Albrechts when they came over for dinner. Peter, the banty rooster Kraut, enjoyed his Grain Belt beer – he walked over with a case of the swill – and a lit Marlboro was never far from his hand. His voice was on the rocks, a cocktail of beer and smokes, and I needed only to feed the occasional single word question for him to blather on about his years as a SeaBee in the South Pacific.

All the while that Peter had my ear about the SeaBees, or the city streets department where he was a working manager, my eyes were on Margo. She lounged on the sofa across the living room from us and spoke with Bets. Certainly I understood that she had been a tease from the day that she understood the sway accommodating quiff held over men. But while Mrs. Blue Hair was right in that Margo’s coarse North Country features were not much to look at in broad daylight, or lamplight, I didn’t necessarily want her in any light.

We played 45s on the record player and Margo loved the hit from Japan, “Sukiyaki”, playing it over and over again. She and I danced, and to dance so close to that woman was to receive the promise of her voluptuosity. After a second slow dance, her eyes widened. “Hm, I feel your hard-on,” she whispered.

I let her go and stepped back, unsure if I’d heard her correctly. When I was about to ask, there was a bellow, as if from a dying animal, from another part of the house.

Shooting a glance at Bets, she responded with a shrug, her arms spread, palms up.

Margo rolled her eyes. “That’s Peter in the john. He’s sick, really sick.” That is how we learned that Peter Albrecht had an aggressive form of cancer and had just begun his chemotherapy treatments that week. Margo sipped her beer. “Sometimes he sounds like a cat that’s gotten its tail slammed in a door.” She shrugged. Bets and I didn’t know where to look. “Lucky he’s one tough son of a bitch.”

 

My office on campus was eight blocks from home and that summer I would walk to and from work. Most afternoons I would hear “Sukiyaki” coming from their place. I shall walk looking up. Was that the translation? It was something like that. Or, Tears fall from my eyes as I walk alone?

Crossing over to say hello, I would find Margo sunning on the back porch. Her oiled thighs would slide against each other, a greeting that slipped into my blood. Other days, she would be pulling down her sun-dried laundry from the clothesline, her arms reaching up to pull loose the wooden clothespins, her breasts taut against her white linen blouse. I wanted to clasp her from behind.

 

The Albrechts invited us throughout that summer to their cabin on Little Pickerel Lake. We would go, but we never spent the night, let alone a Friday through Sunday debauch. The place was a slapdash three-room affair ideal for deer hunters and fishermen that Peter and his brothers, who lived up and down the shoreline, had built in one weekend in 1959. Bets and I would spend a few hours with the Albrechts, Peter, Margo, and I knocking back brown longnecks, and then when I, with our hosts, was fairly snockered, Bets would drive us back to Superior. Lovely Bets, driving and fuming the whole way. That I recall anyway. It became routine.

I have no clear understanding why I treated Bets so poorly. She was nothing if not good and loyal to the core, attractive in a way different from other women in 1963. She was a red-headed Jackie Kennedy-as-boho-painter magically transferred from New York City to Superior, always vaguely bewildered as to how that transfer had occurred. Her curiosity charged her eyes, her art, and her daily commentary on goings-on in North End and uptown. I have no clear understanding why I treated her this way – the horn on for Mrs. Margo Albrecht – beyond the usual male curse: opportunity.

The penultimate trip to Little Pickerel Lake consisted of Bets on the beach with her oils, brushes, canvas and easel, Marky playing in the wet sand, leashed to his mother’s waist, Peter on the sofa, on the nod with a copy of Field & Stream on his chest, and Margo and I, dancing.

I moved across the cabin’s swaying floor with her, again to the happy, sad Japanese pop song. She ground her sweet spot against my thigh. I snuck looks at Bets out the cabin’s picture window – she worked her canvas down by the shore, Marky at her bare feet filling a red bucket with sand. My hand angled into my dance partner’s blouse, into her bra, and fished out a peach-eyed breast.

I kissed the nubbly prize while Peter sawed a winter’s worth of logs. Opportunity.

***

Three days later, Peter invited us to watch him kill and skin a pair of rabbits. Margo called us over for dinner and the slaughter was part of the full experience. Bets eyed Peter’s martial chop to the neck of each rabbit, then the peeling away of the skin, the butchering. She didn’t flinch. I thought it was brutal, the oddest thing I had ever been asked to witness.

 

I tried to break it off with her, put out what had been smoldering. Leaving the office early, and Peter still at work, I went to their place. I had a plan. I knew what I was going to say. She could take the example of our dancing at the cabin for how messed up it was: Bets outside with Marky, painting the Little Pickerel waterscape, Margo’s husband crapped out on the sofa while I pawed her tits. It had to end. The trouble was, the moment I saw her I was hard.

She glanced down. “Are you going to let that go to waste?”

I shook my head. She wasn’t listening. Turning to leave, Margo caught my arm and pulled me close, kissing me, firmly palming me.

I grabbed her by the shoulders but it was she who maneuvered us backward, bumping into chairs, doorframes, knocking against a table, into her bedroom and onto the chenille spread of the bed.

 

Before she let me go, she said, “The next time you’re fucking Bets, think of me.”

It was still early when I got out to the cabin. I’d driven out on my own the Friday before classes began with the idea of making it up to both of them. Peter was drinking coffee that looked like motor oil and Margo was exercising in front of a small television set to The Jack LaLanne Show. The signal from Duluth shifted from snow flurries to a full-on blizzard.

I was not a fisherman and Peter knew that, but I had always been a gregarious, go-along-to-get-along guy. When he said, “Let’s go out on Little Pickerel and pull in some crappies,” I agreed.

There was a layer of haze that the sun saturated with gold. I could see his brothers in the middle distance on both sides as we slid the boat across the sand and out onto the lake. I could see them nod in recognition.

Out on Little Pickerel, we sat and fished. I did anyway, poorly. Peter, the poor son of a bitch, the cancer killing him by fluctuating degrees, some days better than others, smoked and, I felt, studied me.

“That was some time when you were out here last. Boy-oh.” He laughed.

I shook my head. “Yeah, and I had a helluva time getting to work the next day. Would’ve been happy if my head had just exploded and been done with it.”

“Shit, yeah.” His brothers sat in their boats, smoking their cigarettes and Swisher Sweets. “Ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“Did you fuck her?”

I turned and looked at him and had the presence of mind not to ask when. “What?”

“I want to know if you put it to Margo. Did you fuck a dying man’s wife in front of his eyes? Because the last thing I remember was the two of you dancing and you grabbing hold of her pods.”

“Christ, Peter. I wouldn’t do that.” I focused on the fishing rod, the line looped out into the Little Pickerel chops.

There was a whoosh and then crushing pain and, yes, I saw stars, I saw the whole fucking view from the planetarium’s front row seat. My arms flew out and I was clubbed again. He tumbled me into Little Pickerel Lake.

My face bobbed inches below the lake’s ruddy surface. He leaned over the side of the boat, refracted through the water into a shifting, melting figure looking back at me. The figure vomited, his own death pocking the surface of the lake, and I was gone.


 

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